Monday, November 6, 2006
Bryan Caplan, whose work I greatly admire, argues that public choice is too optimistic about the operation of democracy:
Public choice economists are used to blaming what they call "rational ignorance." In elections with millions of voters, the personal benefits of learning more about policy are negligible, because one vote is so unlikely to change the outcome. So why bother learning?
In my book, however, I argue that rational ignorance has been oversold. Rational ignorance cannot explain why people gravitate toward false beliefs, rather than simply being agnostic. Neither can it explain why people who have barely scratched the surface of a subject are so confident in their judgments — and even get angry when you contradict them. Why, to return to the case of immigration, do people leap to the conclusion that immigration is disastrous, and have trouble holding a civil conversation with someone who disagrees?
My view is that these are symptoms not of ignorance, but of irrationality. In politics as in religion, some beliefs are more emotionally appealing than others. For example, it feels a lot better to blame sneaky foreigners for our economic problems than it does to blame ourselves. This creates a temptation to relax normal intellectual standards and insulate cherished beliefs from criticism — in short, to be irrational.
But why are there some areas — like politics and religion — where irrationality seems especially pronounced? My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.
I am less sanguine about his proposals for reform than his analysis of the problem, but they are certainly interesting.